I am sorry to say that Peter did not feel very well that evening. His mother put him to bed and gave him a dose of chamomile tea. “One tablespoon to be taken at bedtime.” But Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper.
— Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
As a child I couldn’t stand Beatrix Potter, and not just because her cute, jacketed critters bored me senseless. I loved tough children’s tales, but Potter’s stories were manipulative and twisted, filled with punitive authority figures — Mrs. Rabbit is a prissy scold, Farmer McGregor an evil-tempered lout — visiting tight-lipped moral justice on insipid mice, bunnies, and the truly insufferable Jemima Puddle-Duck. Small wonder that poor Peter Rabbit cowers under the bedclothes while Mrs. R., like some demented Nurse Ratched, looms menacingly over him on all those quaint plates and mugs that fuel the multimillion-dollar Potter industry.
How the franchise continues to flourish in this age of permissive parenting is either a mystery or a case of marketing trumping ideology, but surely there’s a meaty drama to be made about the dark forces that drove this dyed-in-the-wool Victorian. Director Chris Noonan (who made Babe) and screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. (who specializes in musicals) are having none of it. Blackness may have lurked within the Potter heart, but you’d never know it from Miss Potter, which shifts the burden of ill humor onto the lady authoress’ petit-bourgeois mother (the excellent Barbara Flynn), thus freeing Renée Zellweger to perk up Beatrix into a chipper cross between Bridget Jones and Mary Poppins. Unfortunately for her, she has Emily Watson at her elbow, acting up a storm as the independent sister of Potter’s doomed fiancé — which had me wishing the two actresses would either trade places or run with the promisingly homoerotic current that courses through most close same-sex friendships of that period.
Nothing doing. Bronzed and russet all over, with a quaintly autumnal production design to match, Beatrix bustles about, flashing the Zellweger sour-lemons smile, dispensing maidenly charm and no-nonsense practicality as she shepherds her little tales from soup to nuts with only grudging help from a whiskered family of publishers, save for the youngest brother, Norman (a wishy-washy Ewan McGregor). Smiling nervously as if not to unseat the mustache precariously affixed to his upper lip, this Mr. McGregor does nothing to convince us that the pallid swain is the love of Beatrix’ life, his untimely death withering her creative juices until a sensible country solicitor (Lloyd Owen) restores her to pink-cheeked vivacity.
By most accounts, Potter was a serious workaholic monomaniacally devoted to the purity of her vision. Undaunted, Noonan and Maltby are determined to squeeze her life into a run-of-the-mill romance in which love walks in to heal all wounds. Voiceover and flashbacks work overtime to convince us of her untended childhood, though it’s far from clear that she was any lonelier than other well-to-do Victorian tykes, most of whom were left to the tender mercies of nannies and governesses while their parents scratched away at the nouveau-mercantile pecking order. Potter’s parents may have been social climbers, but there’s scant evidence that poor Mrs. P. deserved to be retooled as the philistine nag on whom Mrs. Rabbit may have been modeled, any more than Mr. P. (the ever-reliable Bill Paterson, gamely enunciating through the abundant fungus blooming on both his cheeks) deserves to be reduced to a kindly old Dad, whose sole function is to anoint Beatrix sensitive artist of the year.
And so we leave her, a merry chipmunk, scribbling and sketching in the sun by a suspiciously blue lake in a part of England known for its unrelenting rain. In real life, she married her solicitor, gave up writing, and devoted herself to buying up half the land in the Lake District from under the filthy mitts of marauding developers. I doubt whether Potter, a woman who battled her way to fame, wealth, and a pioneering spot in the conservation movement in a world where women mostly sat and sewed, bore any resemblance to the film’s serenely girlish figure. Which may be why the only bright spots in Miss Potter are the all-too-sparing special effects, in which Peter and his pals come to life, rise up, and quite understandably scuttle away from their wimpy creator.